As we age, the light and dark signals that regulate our circadian rhythm are less likely to reach our retina. This disturbance can reduce our brain’s ability to naturally synchronize our sleep/wake cycle. Research estimates that 40-70% of older adults experience sleep disturbances due to the dysregulation of these light and dark cycles. These cycles are crucial for our cognitive and physical health throughout our lives. Our body naturally produces melatonin during the dark cycle, so when our body does not respond to these cycles and our natural melatonin does not kick in, our brain is not sure how to respond. Most of us have experienced how lack of regular sleep can affect our memory, energy levels and overall cognitive function. Imagine these disconcerting deficits slowly evolving through the end of our lives.
The absence of these light/dark cycles specifically for individuals diagnosed with dementia can exacerbate symptoms which may lead to increased confusion, behaviors, overall disorientation, and rapid cognitive decline. Appropriate lighting during both day and night can help support a healthy circadian rhythm resulting in more consistent sleep cycles for individuals with dementia.
Ways to use lighting to induce healthy awake and sleep cycles:
- Upon waking, open curtains and blinds to let in natural light
- During the daylight hours, use light bulbs in ceiling light fixtures that have a color temperature range of 4600K to 6500K, which will emulate natural light indoors (these bulbs have more blue tones)
- Make sure that lighting is balanced, with no dark or super bright areas
- In the morning, sit near a window with natural sunlight or consider sitting in front of a light therapy lamp
- Get outdoors at least once during daylight hours
- Close curtains and blinds at the same time every night, to let our brains know that it should start winding down and prepare for sleep
- In the evenings, turn off overhead lighting and turn on lamps that use warm white bulbs to give our brains the signal to induce the sleep cycle
- Consider adding melatonin to your loved ones nighttime routine (please consult with your loved one’s doctor before adding melatonin to the nightly medication regimen)
- Utilize touch lamps for ease of use, especially next to the bed
- When using nightlights, use lights with warmer tones. Consider motion night lights, so they do not disturb sleep but will safely illuminate walking areas
- Salt lamps can be a wonderful way to add warm light to a room
**Bonus tip- Ask your loved one’s doctor about vitamin D supplements, especially in parts of the country where there is less light in the winter months.